Grey Imports and the Pitfalls and Perils of Warranties

I have always been suspicious of warranties. Given the level of protection afforded us in the UK by the Sales of Goods and Services Act they seem redundant. After all a 12 month guarantee is enshrined in law, so why do we need any manufacturer backing? This absurdity is further compounded by the ridiculous hoops that companies make us jump through to ensure that the warranties are valid. Register online, retain the receipts, keep a note of the serial number, make sure you don’t lose the toilet paper thin slip of paper stuck at the bottom of the box. All told it is a lot of messing about for something that, assuming the product is built to a decent quality, we probably won’t need.

That said when it came to laying out for my camera gear I made sure that I followed the procedures set down to the letter. Given that my camera and lenses are worth significantly more than my car it seemed prudent that I should have recourse for action should something go awry. However, it turns out that despite my best efforts I have still managed to fall foul of the technicalities by unknowingly purchasing a camera that is a grey import. For those who are unaware a ‘grey import’ is a product that was intended for sale in another country or region. A lot of manufacturers price their products differently in different areas and different governments set taxes at different levels on consumer electronics. This means certain high end goods (for example a £4000 Nikon D4) can retail in places like Hong Kong cheaper than the wholesale price in the UK or US. The upshot of this is that some savvy business people can purchase them in bulk, ship them over and then under cut the local market. At first pass this seems like a win/win scenario, the consumer gets a good deal on a product and the supplier makes a healthy mark up which is all well and good until the item develops a fault.

For me it was my D700 that started having an issue with the hot shoe sync. A quick blast of Google-fu and it turned out to be quite a common problem so given that the camera was only 6 months old I packed it all up and posted it to Nikon so their usually excellent warranty department can take care of it. The next day their customer care representative was on the phone. They had checked the serial number and the camera had been sold in Hong Kong and as such wasn’t covered under European warranty. I went back to the original listing on eBay (really, that should have been a warning sign) and the camera was advertised as “UK Stock ready for immediate dispatch” so I contacted the seller and they explained they had ‘made a mistake due to mix up in their warehouse’ *cough* bull crap *cough*and sent me the wrong camera. However they went on to reassure that the camera did have a warranty but I would have to post it back to Hong Kong for it to be honoured!

As you could imagine I was livid. To make matters worse my credit card company were powerless as the transaction had been handled through PayPal. It turns out if you use PayPal you lose your credit card’s security because no contract exists between them and the supplier. All responsibility passes to PayPal as the mediator. My next step was to contact PayPal (you may know them as the people that advertise how safe and secure they are to use) and they could do nothing because the item was over 90 days old.

In short, I was boned.

The most frustrating part of this was despite how careful I had been yet I had still fallen fowl of the fine print. I had made sure to buy UK stock, I had filled out all the forms, registered the products online and kept hold of the warranty cards yet somehow I still ended up with an expensive camera that had no protection under UK law. For the record I don’t blame Nikon for this, they have to protect their product somehow although given that all the cameras are manufactured to the same specification a world wide warranty cover would be nice. I had no choice but to foot the hefty bill for the repair as I couldn’t be without the camera for the month or more it would take to ship it to Hong Kong and back. All told I learnt a few important lessons; credit cards are worthless on PayPal, PayPal protection isn’t worth a damn after 90 days, people lie on eBay, and most importantly check your gear with the manufacturer to make sure it is UK stock!

Elements of Composition – Contrast and Tonal Range

These two subjects are so closely related that it is nearly impossible to discuss them separately, however they are different and each impacts an image in its own way.

Contrast derives its importance from the way the brain and eye work together to view the world. As I discussed here the eye does not see the whole but rather jumps from one key area of an image to another and the brain smooths over the gaps. In general the eye instinctively jumps to the point of the scene with the highest contrast and as such white against dark grey or black is extremely powerful whereas a lighter grey against a darker grey would be more subtle. A knowing photographer can use this to manipulate contrast and guide the viewer’s focus to wherever he or she desires.

Lay Brothers Refectory, Fountains Abbey - Bruce Barnbaum

A masterful combination of contrast, tonal range and movement work together in this image by Bruce Barnbaum

In very general terms high contrast gives an image ‘pop’ whereas low contrast is gentler. Each one has it’s place depending on what you are trying to express in the photograph. For example if you were to be photographing dancing or sports you might want to make the images quite contrasty to add a sense of excitement whereas if you are photographing children or a family portrait then you may want to lower the overall contrast to add a sense of gentleness and peace.

It is very important to realise that  the tonal range of an image has no relation on the contrast. Take these examples:

Low Contrast

Low Contrast

 This first image has a tonal range of white to black however it would be considered a low contrast image because every tone is next to a tone that is imperceptibly lighter or dark. There is no contrast here at all.

High Contrast

High Contrast

This second image has an identical tonal range to the first one however; the leap from black to white is the strongest contrast possible.

Thus image contrast depends on tonal juxtapositions, not tonal range.

A tonal range of an image can generally be described as either ‘high key’ with light tones predominating or ‘low key’ darker tone more apparent.

High Key

High Key

Low Key

Low Key

Each approach has its own resonance and there is a strong emotional distinction between the two of them. In very general terms darker tones lead to sombre images whereas lighter tones are more optimistic. Of course there are many exceptions to this but it is a good place to start.

As a final word of warning I have seen many photo’s hurt by inappropriate contrast. There seems to be a fixation, in particular with beginners, to massively overcook the contrast in their images believing it to be an easy way to create dynamic photography. It is always worth considering what you are trying to say with an image before you push up the contrast slider in Lightroom. Will it really benefit from the muddy blacks, bright whites and destruction of the middle greys? Probably not.